Mutterings of a Fool

Man, Dad, Runner, Chief dog walker

Tag: pizza

Grana Padano competition – round 1

One of my bucket list goals is one day to buy a whole wheel of Parmesan and keep it in my cheese store at home (obviously I’d be in my dream country house that has a cheese store) so I can shave a bit off whenever I have the urge for some cheese. So it is perhaps no surprise that I was quick to accept an invite to take part in a cooking competition featuring the king of cheeses. The premise for this first challenge is simple; create 2 courses of my choosing that capture the taste of Italy and where Grana Padano is the star ingredient using the selection of food sent to me plus any store cupboard items I wanted. The competition is being judged by Francesco Mazzei and the second round takes place in London where we get to spend a day with the man himself.

With a pizza oven in my garden and the forecast for a weekend of glorious September sunshine I of course opted for pizza for one of my courses, plus parmesan is a key ingredient in the greatest of all pizzas; Prosciutto Crudo. I love this pizza because it’s the perfect combination of flavours, you have the rich tomato and mozzarella base which is then offset by the peppery rocket and the salty parmesan. I actually prefer it with English ham because I think prosciutto adds too much salt to the mix but either way it’s delicious.

I’m not sure there are any deserts that feature Grana Padano so for my second course I decided on a starter and something that would be perfect before quite a rich pizza. Butternut squash soup in my mind perfectly captures the Autumnal feeling in the air now in an Italian dish, it’s light and full of flavour and can be easily made in the time it takes to get the pizza oven up to temperature.

Butternut squash soup

Butternut squash soup

Ingredients

Large butternut squash, skinned, deseeded and chopped into chunks

Couple of sticks of celery, roughly chopped

Large onion, diced

Chopping veg for soup2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock

A large pile of grated Grana Padano

Method

  1. Put a good chunk of butter into a large saucepan and melt, once melted add all the vegetables and slowly sauté until the onions are beginning to soften.
  2. Add the stock to the pan and simmer for 60 minutes with the lid on.
  3. After an hour the vegetables should be really soft, pop the mixture into a blender or food processor and give it a blitz until the vegetables are broken up but not so it’s completely smooth. I like to have a bit of substance to a soup rather than something completely smooth.
  4. Serve piping hot with a big pile of Grana Padano in the middle, the cheese slowly melts into the soup as you eat it and is delicious!

Butternut squash soup close up

Prosciutto Crudo pizza

Ingredients

For the dough;

250g Strong white bread flour

250g 00 grade pasta flour

6g dried yeast

5g salt

2 tablespoons rapeseed oil

325ml warm water

For the topping;

Passata

Mozzarella

Rocket

Ham or prosciutto

Grana Padana shavings

Pizza oven fired up

Method

  1. If you happen to have a pizza oven then the first job is to get that going, light a small fire with newspaper and twigs before adding some thicker sticks and small logs. My oven takes about 2.5 hours to get up to pizza cooking temperature so needs to be lit nice and early.
  2. Red Kitchenaid mixing pizza doughThen it’s time to make the dough, my recipe is based on a River Cottage one, but I’ve started using half fine pasta flour on the recommendation of a guy at a food festival who was cooking and selling pizzas. It gives the base a really delicate, thin crust which makes all the difference. For the dough I use our KitchenAid; simply mix the water, yeast and oil together and leave for 5 minutes for the yeast to get going, mix the dry ingredients together in the mixer then slowly add the yeast mixture. Once all combined you just leave it to mix for 10 minutes on a medium speed.
  3. Leave the dough to prove for an hour somewhere warm. Keep feeding the fire with logs so the temperature gradually builds up.
  4. After an hour knock the dough back and separate into 4 equal sized balls. If you’re using a conventional oven now’s the time to turn it on at the highest temperature it will go to.
  5. My oven was now up to temperature so I pushed the fire to the back and threw some smaller logs on to keep it burning.
  6. Now it’s time to make the pizzas, I prefer using a passata on the base rather than tomato puree and if I have time I make my own so I can cram a load of vegetables (courgette, onion, carrot, tomato, mushroom) into it without the kids knowing. Roll out the base until nice a thin, I use semolina flour to roll onto as it seems to really help stop the pizza sticking to the worktop or the pizza peel.
  7. Spread a layer of passata on the top, sprinkle with chunks of ham and then break up a ball of mozzarella and spread all over the pizza. Cook the pizza like this until the base is crispy (2-3 mins in my oven. 5-6 in a hot conventional oven).
  8. Take the pizza out of the oven, sprinkle the top with the rocket and a healthy covering of Grana Padano shavings.

The perfect ham parmesan and rocket pizza

There you have it, my idea of the perfect afternoons cooking and eating. All 3 children loved the soup, particularly having the melted cheese stirred through it, but the pizza was less successful ‘I don’t like this green stuff daddy’. They had a salami pizza instead plus my famous garlic pizza which is always the first pizza to go in the oven. I’ve really enjoyed taking part in this challenge, a great excuse to fire the pizza oven up for perhaps the last time this summer, now I just have to wait and see if the amazing Francesco Mazzei agrees with my menu choices.

A wood fired pizza oven cooking day

One thing you learn when you have a wood fired pizza oven is that it takes quite a bit of effort to get it fired up and at the right temperature for cooking, so once it’s hot you might as well maximise the use of it. It takes me about 2.5 hours to get mine hot enough to cook a pizza, then less than 30 minutes to cook 8-10 pizzas for a pizza party. Which is probably still worth it as the pizzas are awesome but why not keep the fire going and cook more?

Which is exactly what we did last weekend; we cooked some pizzas for dinner with the kids and then kept the fire going to cook some tapas in the evening for just the adults. It takes a bit of prep work but then if you want instant cooking using a pizza oven probably isn’t for you. We had a friend over for the weekend so once the fire was burning nicely we set to work on the prep, checking on the fire occasionally to add an extra log or 2.

Pizza oven fired up

We mixed up some dough for the pizza and also for some pita breads to go with the tapas. I’ve been wanting to make bread of some kind in the oven for a while and these seemed like a good starting point, I’m also itching to make naan breads which should puff up perfectly. Once the doughs were proving we got the tapas ready, on the menu was; lamb koftas, lemon and chilli scallops and some marinated squid. All cook really quickly so although the prep takes a while the cooking bit is easy and of course you just serve straight from oven to table.

Pita breads cooking

Our cooking weekend also timed nicely with the delivery of a pizza challenge from Morrison’s, they’ve launched a new in store pizza service available until 21st June to celebrate father’s day where children can build their dad’s face on a pizza. My challenge was to make a pizza that looked like me with a little help from Matilda and Henry. Now while the Morrison’s pizzas taste great, I bet none are quite as good as the ones cooked in a real wood fired pizza oven. There was much debate about how to make best use of the vegetables supplied to create a pizza, I’m particularly pleased with our use of the black part of the mushrooms to make eyebrows. The result I’m sure you’ll agree is an uncanny likeness, they do say you are what you eat….

Pizza in the shape of my face

Making a day of the cooking was so much fun, quite tempted to expand it to brunch also, the choices really are endless and while it’s a steep learning curve understanding how to cook in an oven that doesn’t have dials it really is a fab way to spend a day. This tapas cooking could easily be extended to include many more dishes and by cooking one course at a time then eating it make a great evening dinner party with friends.

The combination of the rich lamb with the spicy scallops was perfect and the pita breads were amazing. The dough for them was quite weird but once they were in the oven the just puffed up perfectly. They’d be really good with some slow roast lamb in them and some good homemade coleslaw (I’m salivating a little just at the thought of it!)

pizza oven tapas feast

I would also thoroughly recommend the wood fired oven cookbook, it has some great recipes in it and instructions on how to use you oven, but it also gives you some ideas for menus and cooking days so you can maximise the heat in your oven. This was our first real attempt and I learned a lot about how to maintain the fire and the size of log that was most effective to add to it each time, there’s definitely an art to cooking this way.

Disclosure – Morrisons sent me the ingredients to make pizza, but all words and opinions here are my own.

How to build a wood fired pizza oven

Warning; this post contains gratuitous photos of pizzas and manly cooking on fire. Readers may experience sudden urges to eat pizza and devote half their garden to the art of cooking the ultimate pizza.

A wood fired pizza oven has long been on my bucket list of ‘things to build when I have a big garden’, sure you can probably build one in a small garden but our last house was a Victorian terrace and I think the neighbours would probably have needed a lot of bribing with pizzas to put up with the smoke. Also not sure the kids would have been quite so excited if I’d got rid of all the grass to build it.

You may remember quite some time ago now I wrote a post right at the start of my build which was full of hope and excitement. Well as is inevitable with these things it took a little longer than planned to actually build it (the small matter of training to run 100km got in the way) but it is finally done and we have cooked our first pizza’s on it. Was it worth the effort? You bet it was, they were AMAZING. So if you’re inspired to have a go at building one or just curious on the process then read on. I will add that while I’m always willing to have a go at DIY I really don’t have any skills in building or much knowledge but it was a great experience building it and also doing something physical in the evenings that tested my brain differently to work.

Finished oven

Planning

You don’t necessarily need a massive space for the oven, my base measures just 130cm square, but some people build on worktop area and mini outdoor kitchens around it so can scale up to a much bigger area. You also don’t need to worry about what’s behind the oven, it doesn’t get that hot on the outside (if it does your insulation isn’t good and it won’t cook well!) you just need some space in front to be able to put the pizzas in etc. However do think about your neighbours, it’ll produce some smoke at the start so probably best to do it away from both your back doors and your neighbours.

Do spend time planning and researching, there are some great resources online and spending time at this stage planning and making your design decisions will make the build much easier. The inspiration for my build came from reading Flossie Teacakes blog about the one her husband had built, it made me realise it was possible even for someone like me and then he produced a handy guide which you can read in this post on her blog. It’s a great place to start and formed the basis of my build. Every build is slightly different and I took pieces from his guide and adapted slightly after reading the wonderful UK Wood Fired Oven forum. The guys on there are really helpful and the build posts give you a great way to see how other people have tackled the issues you face or designed their ovens.

I’m not going to reproduce the detail of that guide but will share some specific things I did and the design choices I made. Always happy to answer questions if you have them though as it’s my new favourite obsession.

The decision you make on design can greatly impact the cost of it, I was on a very tight budget and I think spent around £400 in total. Many people easily spend £1000+ so there is a big range. I chose to make my dome out of red house bricks as I could get these free from my neighbour, you can also build with fire bricks which are designed to withstand the heat and then hold onto it. They will make for a better oven but obviously at a cost so you have to decide what works for you.

I did however use the fire bricks for my hearth, as this is what you cook on I thought it worth the investment. I also wouldn’t scrimp on insulation as this is the key to your oven getting really hot and holding the heat to cook on. Particularly if you want to cook breads and other things in the oven which need longer to cook so heat retention is key. I used thermolite blocks under the hearth as they’re really effective and cheap, then on the dome I had some special insulation blanket plus the very weird vermicrete. The rest of the materials you can get from your local builders merchants easy enough and the guide above as all the details on those.

Size is important for pizza ovens though, mine has an internal diameter of 30 inches which is probably about as small as you want to go to be able to cook decent size pizzas and also bread. It can definitely be much larger though if you want it too.

The build

Once you’ve decided on your design you’re ready to start building and this is of course the fun bit. But don’t expect to be done in a few days, I would guess that I invested 50+ hours easily in the build and there was quite a few late evenings working in almost darkness. If you could dedicate a few solid days to it you might get done quicker though but for me evenings were the only real time I had to do it.

Doing the base was the easy bit, I used sleepers for mine as I really didn’t want to attempt bricklaying and in theory it should have been quicker. Hand cutting them was a fun task though! I also quite like the aesthetics of the wood and it fits in with our garden, but if you have a look on the forum you’ll see that most people build the base from bricks.

I then put the thermolite blocks on the sleepers for insulation and fire bricks on top of that for my hearth, then it was time to start the dome. This started off fairly easy you simply make up some mortar (which is made from cement, sand, lime and fireclay) and start making your dome shape. I used a circle cut from cardboard as my template with a piece of string in the middle. Each time you go up a layer you use the string to ensure it’s the right distance and angle from the centre.

Building the dome was relatively simple apart from 2 bits; going behind the arch and then the final few layers. I had to build a former from a sheet of wood with sand on the top for the last few layers to stop them falling in. The only other painful bit was the arch itself which fell down a few times when I tried to build too quickly and then ended up a bit wonky. Beyond that it’s really just time, I managed to get a layer done each night and there was 8 in total I think so it does take a while.

With the dome built more insulation goes on the outside and then I built a chimney on the arch where I’d left a gap during the build. Then all was needed was a few curing fires to get the moisture out of the insulation and mortar before you can fire it up properly. There were certainly some frustrating moments and it’s definitely not going to win any prizes for style or build quality but it cooks pizzas and that’s what matters!

Cooking the pizza

The moment I’d been waiting for! It took about 2 hours to build up the temperature so it was hot enough, I got up to about 530 degrees so pretty darn hot (an infrared thermometer is a very useful tool here and can be bought for about £10 off Amazon). You get through a few logs in this time as well so you do need to keep feeding the fire and tending to it periodically. You can burn any hard wood as long as it is seasoned of course.

Then once you’re up to temperature you’ll notice that the soot clears from the internal walls on the dome and you’re ready to cook. You’ll need a pizza peel here and ideally a long handled wire brush (although for now I’m using my peel). You push the fire to the back and sides and then clear the ash from the hearth. The pizza will then cook in about 2 minutes, it’s amazing to stand and watch it bubble up. You’ll probably need to turn it during this time so that one side isn’t too burnt.

Pizza cookingFinished pizza

And that’s it, you now have the means to cook the most amazing pizza outside of Italy and it sits in your back garden. Plus that’s just the start, I have an amazing wood fired oven cookbook with menus for cooking days. Yes that’s right a whole day of cooking on the oven using different temperatures as the oven rises and falls. Can’t wait!

If you have any questions at all do let me know, more than happy to help out.

Pizza my heart

A pizza oven has been on my dream house wish list for a long time and no I don’t mean one of those attachments you can put on a Weber barbeque. I’m talking roaring wood fire in a domed oven in the garden, long handled pizza peel in hand deftly whisking out the perfect thin and crispy pizza. But it’s always stayed a dream just like having a ride on lawn mower and a kitchen with a stable door. That is until now.

After extensive negotiations and many hours of internet research the lady of the manor has given me the green light to try to build a pizza oven. Because of course I’m not going to do it the easy way and just buy an oven, no that would be far too straightforward (and bloody expensive to be fair) so I’m going down the DIY route. On the face of it it doesn’t appear to be too tricky a task, providing my dome building skills are ok the rest is actually pretty straightforward.

I’ve found a great guide for building one that I spotted on another blog and I have now got most of the materials needed. Having a load of random bricks spread around the garden turned out to actually be quite useful! I’ll try to write at least a couple more blogs about it in due course but the intention is to turn this pile of building materials into the greatest pizza making machine outside of Northern Italy in the next few weeks. Wish me luck!